AUBURN, Ala. - In a Saturday semifinal that last three and a half hours, No. 5 Kentucky (22-4) came from 3-1 down to conquer No. 9 Tennessee (21-7), 4-3, on Saturday afternoon at the Yarbrough Tennis Center.
Fifth-year Alafia Ayeni saved three match points on his way to the dual-clinching victory at second singles, sending the Cats to the SEC Tournament final for the second-straight season.
"Wow, I mean what a battle," Ayeni said. "That's what college tennis is all about. Two great rivals going down to the wire. It was looking really tough for me in the second set, I had to save three match points on his serve, but I'm just really proud of the way the team helped me fight through it. The team being there for me and supporting me, that was the thing that pushed me to victory."
Saturday's win avenges a 4-0 regular season loss for the Wildcats in Knoxville and secures Kentucky a spot in tomorrow's conference championship match against either Georgia or Texas A&M. UK also reached the SEC Tournament Championship in 2022, eventually falling to Florida.
The match began with doubles action as Kentucky stole the doubles point from the Vols with wins on courts two and three. After Ayeni and Taha Baadi came up short against the top-five pair of Pat Harper and Johannus Monday, third doubles Jaden Weekes and Liam Draxl evened matters with a 6-2 win over Angel Diaz and Martim Prata. That left the doubles point in the hands of court two, where the No. 67 duo of JJ Mercer and Joshua Lapadat emerged victorious in a tiebreaker to give the Cats the lead.
As the two teams moved to singles, both sides won three first sets, setting up what was sure to be a tight finish. The Volunteers would secure the next three points as Tomas Rodriguez, Shunsuke Mitsui and Angel Diaz all claimed victory to put Tennessee in front, 3-1. Kentucky responded quickly, however, as Lapadat and Draxl posted straight-set wins to knot the match at three. Lapadat defeated the Volunteers' Blaise Bicknell, while Draxl, currently ranked No. 19 by the ITA, notched his best win of the season, toppling the No. 2 Monday, 6-4, 6-4 at first singles.
Those results left one point up for grabs, as No. 25 Ayeni and No. 32 Emile Hudd did battle at second singles. After dropping the first set 6-1, Ayeni faced a trio of match points in the second set with Hudd serving at 6-5, fending them off to force a tiebreaker. The San Diego, Calif. native would take the breaker, 7-5, bringing the match to a decisive third set. The two adversaries traded early breaks before Ayeni would take the advantage for good with another break of serve at 3-3. The Cornell transfer served out the match, holding at love in the final game for a 6-4 win.
"We have a lot of respect for Tennessee," head coach Cedric Kauffmann said. "They're a well-coached team and they work really hard. What heart [all the way] to the wire. I'm just very proud of my boys and we got a lot more work to do."
Court 1 - No. 5 Harper/Monday (TENN) def. No. 23 Ayeni/Baadi (UK): 6-1
Court 2 - No. 67 Lapadat/Mercer (UK) def. No. 46 Hudd/Mitsui (TENN) : 7-6 (3)
Court 3 - Draxl/Weekes (UK) def. Diaz/Prata: 6-2
Order of finish: 1, 3, 2
Court 1 - No. 19 Liam Draxl (UK) def. No. 2 Johannus Monday (TENN): 6-4, 6-4
Court 2 - No. 25 Alafia Ayeni (UK) def. No. 32 Emile Hudd (TENN): 1-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4
Court 3 - No. 56 Joshua Lapadat (UK) def. Blaise Bicknell (TENN): 6-4, 7-5
Court 4 - Shunsuke Mitsui (TENN) def. Taha Baadi (UK): 7-5, 6-3
Court 5 - Angel Diaz (TENN) def. Jaden Weekes (UK): 2-6, 6-1, 7-5
Court 6 - Tomas Rodriguez (TENN) def. Charlelie Cosnet (UK): 2-6, 0-6
Order of finish: 6, 4, 3, 1, 5, 2